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Talking on the Radio

Radio communication is a key skill every pilot must develop in order to fly safely. You can listen to Air Traffic Control (ATC) live over the Internet to get an idea of what it is all about. Need some help deciphering what the controllers or pilots are actually saying? No problem! This article will clear up any fog that stands between you and your radio communication skills.

Talking on the radio seems intimidating at first; you hear things like, “India-Golf-Niner-Niner requesting vectors to the initial...” and so on. Really there is no mystery about radio communication. It’s easy once you understand the system, know what you want to do and what you can expect. With the proper radio phraseology and a few helpful hints provided here, you will be well on your way to communicating effectively on the radio.

One of the first things your flight instructor wants you to study is the ICAO International Phonetic Alphabet. What is that? Just click Radio Communication to get the full list. It is used for instance when stating your aircraft call sign. Take for example an imaginary aircraft with tail number N12ASL, it would read like this:


Another example would be the letter that is assigned to a current ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Service). If it has the letter “J” assigned, you would state on initial contact that you have “Juliett”, indicating that you have the current weather for the airport. This letter changes as updates come in.

ATIS refers to continuously broadcasted and updated routine information you should listen to before you call the tower or approach. You’ll get the ceiling, visibility, temperature, wind, altimeter setting, runway in use, and any other special information for the airport you are inbound to or departing from.

Next, you’ll learn about words and phrases used in talking to air traffic control, which can be clearance delivery, ground control, tower, approach, center, or a flight service station.

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) provides you with details and many examples for proper radio communication techniques and phraseology. I highly recommend the digital version of the FAR/AIM for the iPad.

Another subject is frequencies. VHF (Very High Frequency) is the air band between 30 to 300 MHz. Of this 108 to 117.95 MHz are reserved for air navigation, and 118 to 136 MHz are used for civil air/ground voice communications. One frequency you will hopefully never need is 121.5 MHz, which is the emergency frequency.

Okay, what about the helpful strategies? Here is what works for any pilot, flying any size of airplane or helicopter, while either operating in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions or on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan:

Think before you talk

Be organized and plan ahead. What is your aircraft call sign (initial contact should include the full call sign/tail number), what is your position and intention? Controllers like to know what you are up to, so they can plan on their end.

Listen before you talk

Make sure the radio you are using is properly selected, the volume is up, and the correct frequency is tuned in and double-checked. Then, after pressing the transmit button pause briefly before you talk to avoid that the first part of your message gets cut off. Talk at normal speed. Even if it gets busy, you don’t have to talk super fast on the radio. Be friendly, polite, and professional, and ATC will reciprocate.

Read back

“Roger” or “Wilco” does not always cut it. IFR clearances, “hold short” or “line up and wait” instructions are some examples the pilot is required to read back. It is always a good practice to confirm the important parts of an instruction by reading it back; but don’t sound like an echo ;-)

Finally, if you don’t understand a message, ask the controller to repeat it. It could be that the radio was scratchy or the transmission got blocked, that there was too much noise in the cockpit, the volume set too low, language problems, or the air traffic controller simply spoke too fast. Just verify the part of the transmission you didn’t understand.

You can also acknowledge that you are a student pilot. This signals the controller that you may need a little extra help. Did you know that you can turn your computer into a radio simulator to get some practice? You can do so with software you can buy or download for free from the web. Just google for it.

Lastly, whenever you have time, listen to other pilots and controllers. A good training area and flying in a busy environment can get you up to speed in no time. Happy flying!

About GG-Pilot

GG started flying in California, taking the civilian route and making his dream of flying helicopters come true.

He is an ATP Helicopter and CFII on his way to 10,000 flight hours.

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